Evidence on Media Violence Still Stands

By: Dale Kunkel; ©2000
Despite claims to the contrary, there is a very real relationship between violence in the media and violence in society. Dale Kunkel, in an article first published in the Los Angeles Times, explains.


MOVIEGUIDE ® EDITOR’S NOTE: In the following article from the Nov. 6, 2000 enter­tainment section of the LOS ANGELES TIMES, Dale Kunkel responds to some criticisms of the many studies which show a causal relationship between violence depicted in the media and violence in real life, especially among children and teenagers. Kunkel is professor of communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was a senior researcher on the National Television Violence Study, one of the largest scientific projects examining media violence, and currently serves on the research board of the National Institutes of Health. This article is reprinted by the permission of the author in accordance with the reprint policy of the Los Angeles Times.

In a recent column (“More Experts Than Facts on Kids, Media Violence,” LOS ANGE­LES TIMES, Oct. 24), Brian Lowry asserts there is a gap between what we know and what we think we know regarding the effects of media violence. What we think, according to Lowry, is that television violence poses a risk of harm for children. He certainly has that right. Numerous public opinion polls confirm that more than three out of four Americans believe that television violence contributes to real world violence and aggression.

But, Lowry argues that what we really know, according to scientific research, is not quite so clear anymore. He delivers the news that two new “studies” on the topic have just come out. From his perspective, this new evidence calls into question the accuracy of the con­ventional wisdom about television violence.

Disentangling the politics of media violence from the actual scientific evidence is always a difficult task with this contentious social issue. I find it laudable that a television industry critic would devote his attention to the research that informs this debate. But, Lowry’s take on the topic barely scratches the surface, and in the process misleads readers about the true state of knowledge regarding media violence research.

The two new developments that are touted in Lowry’s column–as well as in a recent “20/20” segment on ABC–are not empirical studies at all, but rather reinterpretations by critics who find fault with all of the existing research conducted by others over the past quarter-century. One of these critics, Canadian psychologist Jonathan Freedman, has argued publicly since 1986 that methodological shortcomings in research procedures render the findings of literally every study on the topic essentially meaningless. He has recently issued a rehash of his same arguments, and, hence, old news becomes the latest so-called scientific breakthrough gaining attention from the press.

What was missing from Lowry’s column was any sense of balance to put Freedman’s position in perspective. Lowry notes that Freedman finds no evidence to indicate media violence causes aggression “after analyzing every study on media violence published in English.” Sounds impressive. What Lowry doesn’t explain is that this same task has been engaged by others who have reached radically different conclusions. Who else? Just the following agencies: the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Assn., the American Medical Assn., the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the list goes on.

Every single one of these governmental, scientific and public health organizations has enlisted the nation’s top experts in their field. Like Freedman, these experts have reviewed all the existing knowledge produced by empirical research over the years. And, they have all come to a different conclusion than Freedman. Typical of the statements from the nation’s top scientists, the American Psychological Assn.’s report on media violence con­cludes: “There is absolutely no doubt that those who are heavy viewers of violence demon­strate increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.” Does that sound like an equivocal position?

Freedman and the handful of others who challenge this perspective are certainly en­titled to their viewpoints. It is disingenuous, however, for the press to devote coverage to them and frame their story as if a major scientific debate is underway. Virtually every re­search conclusion ever issued leaves someone holding a contrarian view. Tobacco execu­tives, for example, were always able to find a nay-saying scientist to challenge the evi­dence that smoking causes cancer, until they finally gave up that battle for political rather than scientific reasons.

Indeed, the challenges that persist to the conclusion that media violence causes harm to children are more about politics than science. Those who fear censorship of violent content find any criticism of media violence research a convenient device to aid in their battle. What is lost in the shuffle is that most media effects researchers, myself included, do not support governmental censorship of media violence, even in the face of the overwhelm­ing evidence of its harms.

The prevailing view in the scientific community is to encourage greater sensitivity to the issue by producers, and to provide tools to parents to help them identify the content that poses a risk of harm for their children. What troubles social scientists, however, is when those who oppose censorship of media violence attack the veracity of the evidence that violent depictions have any harmful effects.

Contrarian viewpoints like Freedman’s make for good press, but bad science. In the debate about media violence, the public deserves accurate and balanced information. There is no controversy within the scientific community about the effects of media violence. Rather, there is extraordinary consensus that viewing media violence poses a risk of harm to children.

Just as not every person who smokes contracts cancer, not every child who views violence behaves aggressively. Each of these elements is a risk factor, and statistical probabilities show us that children who view a lot of violence are more prone to physical aggression than those who don’t. That’s what we know, not just what we think.

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